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Monday, 26 February, 2001, 17:17 GMT
Top vet Mac Johnston quizzed

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Britain is facing a new animal crisis with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in several parts of the UK.

Following scares over Mad Cow Disease and swine fever, British livestock farmers are now having to cope with fears over highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease.

The UK Government imposed a ban on the movement of farm animals on Friday, has imposed rigorous exclusion zones around the affected farms and begun the slaughter and incineration of hundreds of animals.

What is the disease, how effective is the action being undertaken by the government and what does the future hold for Britain's farmers

Mac Johnston, Professor of Veterinary Public Health at the Royal Veterinary College, answered your questions in a live Forum.


Transcript:


Simon Millard, Poole, Dorset, UK:

What is foot-and-mouth disease and how does it affect livestock?


Mac Johnston:

Foot-and-mouth disease is a viral disease. It affects livestock, especially cattle and pigs by producing blisters on their tongues, blisters between toes and also causing damage along their gut. Basically, the animals don't normally die but they are particularly unwell - they tend to have a fever. If they do recover they don't produce milk very well and it is a long lingering debility over time.


Newshost:

Does it distress the animals very much?


Mac Johnston:

Yes it does. If you look at a cold-sore on your lip - how would you like cold-sores all over your tongue, down through your throat, down into your stomach and between your toes and fingers? It is painful, it is horrible and it is debilitating.


Newshost:

How did the disease originate? David Blyth, Cromer, Norfolk, Helen White, Abingdon, Oxfordshire and Richard Philips are among those who want to know this. How does an outbreak begin? Is seems as though it is apparently out of nowhere. Can you tell us how it is possible that foot-and-mouth is so diversely widespread before a single incidence is reported?


Mac Johnston:

You have got to look at the world situation first. In a number of places world wide it is endemic - it is everywhere. For example, parts of South America, Africa - especially at the moment South Africa, right across India, Pakistan out to Far East Asia. We are an island - so how does it get into an island? It certainly does not pop out of the soil after 30 years so something or someone has to bring it in. The easiest way to bring it in is with infected animals. That is most unlikely at this time that it should come in with live animals but it is possible.

What is more likely is that it comes in with foodstuffs - especially foodstuffs intended for human consumption that may have actually come from animals that had the foot-and-mouth disease virus. If you look at our current law in the United Kingdom, you can actually feed waste from catering premises to pigs after it has been heat treated and that heat treatment process actually would kill the foot-and-mouth virus. But if you had an aeroplane that flew into Heathrow for example, that had meals prepared say in the Far East, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and there was raw meat or undercooked meat that was then fed, without further heat treatment, to the pigs, that is one of the best ways to introduce the virus to our pig herds.


Newshost:

I know that you can't say for sure - but does it appear at this stage that that is how this outbreak has started - that dead animals were fed to living animals?


Mac Johnston:

No it is not dead animals being fed to living animals. What we are talking about is a piece of pork, for example, that has gone to a catering establishment or a Chinese take-away for example in Newcastle that then went out as catering waste that may have been fed to the pigs up in that farm that were killed yesterday.


Newshost:

So infected pig swill is what we are talking about?


Mac Johnston:

It is called the Swill Feeding Order 1973.


Newshost:

We have had a number of questions about vaccinating animals against foot-and-mouth. You have talked about the horrendous ways in which the animals suffer - is it necessary that they have to be slaughtered? Do we not have any way of vaccinating them against this infectious disease?


Mac Johnston:

At the present moment it is the policy of the European Union to maintain the whole community free of foot-and-mouth disease. So therefore the only way to deal with that is eradication - in other words a slaughter policy.

We do have stocks of vaccine in the member states and that vaccine could be used if a decision was made based on risk or control measures to ring vaccinate an area. But there is no grounds whatsoever for us to vaccinate the stock of the UK. Firstly, you have to remember there are different strains of the virus - so which virus strains do you vaccinate against? Secondly, once you start vaccinating you then accept that you have this disease in the country and it will grumble on for years and years and decades causing suffering to the animals.


News Host:

That answer will have been of great interest to Chris Purdy of Epsom, Surry and Andrew Forkes of Wokingham. They were hoping that the animals could be vaccinated. But as you said, these are drastic measures. So as soon as there is an outbreak, slaughter is really the only option that the farmers and the Government can take?


Mac Johnston:

Absolutely. For example, if you look at the different species involved, we know that one of the most sensitive animals is cattle, so if the virus is about, cattle will pick it up. If pigs get the virus on the other hand, they produce horrendous amounts of virus and that can go into the atmosphere, it can go onto people's clothes and be spread around the countryside. Pigs put about three thousand times more virus particles than the average cow.


News Host:

That is a very interesting point - I was going to ask you to elucidate on that - that is one thing that lots of people don't realise. So if a pig shows signs of foot-and-mouth, it is a much more worrying thing than if sheep or cattle do. Can you explain to us why it is that pigs are so much more infectious?


Mac Johnston:

There are probably two things associated with the pigs; the first is where the blisters are and the number of blisters and the fact that if you actually look at a pig herd you have more individuals than you have on the average cow farm - so you have greater numbers. It spreads between the pigs and then you produce much more virus and each individual pig pours out more virus. Also if you house your pigs - no matter how good the accommodation provided - and you decide to give them air-conditioning to improve the ventilation, you then draw the virus particles out from the shed and fire it up into the atmosphere and then it drifts across with the next rain cloud to the neighbouring farmer or the one five kilometres down the road and then infects them.

We had an incident in 1981 where the virus actually came across from Brittany to the Isle of Wight - a distance of 250 kilometres. That was because they had it in a pig unit in Brittany that was force ventilated air-conditioning, it went up into the atmosphere, drifted across the Channel and then dropped on the Isle of Wight.


News Host:

That is a very scary example. If we move back to what you were saying earlier about vaccination, Helen from Norfolk suspects a political motive for not vaccinating. She points out that when asked on "Breakfast with Frost", our Agriculture Minister said the reason for not vaccinating the farm animals, was that if we did we would be admitting that the disease is in the UK and that we are trying to protect our disease-free status. So clearly the reasons for not vaccinating animals are political rather than for the benefit of UK farming and farm animals? Is this a veterinary or a political issue?


Mac Johnston:

The answer to that is both. I would say it is political with a small "p" rather the upper "P" of the Minister. The reason behind them not vaccinating is based on a number of issues, one of which is the future well-being of the national herd and national flocks in the United Kingdom, never mind anywhere else.

If we accepted foot-and-mouth in this country and controlled it by vaccination, we would end up much the same as we were with swine fever when I was boy - grumbling problems - outbreaks, poor, ill-thriven pigs that were pretty debilitated with the disease. So really the judgement, as a veterinary surgeon, is that for the well-being of the greater number of animals in this country, vaccination is not the correct procedure.

In addition, you must also look around you at the wild life - for example, the deer. If it got out into this country it would get into the wildlife and the cloven-hoofed wildlife such as deer would then get it. Now there is no way that you can vaccinate the deer that are running around the hills and woods of this country. So therefore you would have a tremendous impact upon the well being of our wildlife and not just our agricultural animals.


News Host:

So you approve then that this is something that we just must not tolerate. Lets not vaccinate because we won't be able to vaccinate every animal. So for the well being of all animals, then we really must adopt this policy of - if it is here, we must get rid of it brutally in order for it not to be here at all.


Mac Johnston:

There are a number of factors that influence the decision to vaccinate or not. One of the issues is - have you a disease against which you need to vaccinate or are there other control measures which although they may be horrendous are actually better? The second thing is - how effective is the vaccine? Now if anybody who has a dog or horse will know, the actual constituent parts of the vaccine changes over time with different strains of distemper in dogs and different strains of flu with horses. The same would apply to foot-and-mouth disease - the virus would change and we would have a different problems all the time and it would be so difficult to a get a vaccine that was very effective against all the strains. It would be a nightmare scenario in terms of that but also it would have major impact on the welfare of the animals because you would have to handle the animals and then inject them with a couple of doses of vaccine. So you would stress the animals by having to vaccinate them.

It is not just a simple equation. The present advice from the scientists which has been accepted by the Minister, is that on an assessment of risk, the best option is to slaughter. The Minister is only managing the risk in agreeing with that decision. Now the spin-off from that is that then of course we actually have in the United Kingdom a country which actually has animals of high health status which means that you can then obviously have a market for high health status animals.


Belinda, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Surrey:

Does organic farming keep animals safe from these diseases?


Mac Johnston:

The simple answer to that is no - absolutely not. This is no respecter of husbandry systems or farm boundaries. Whether you are organic or whether you are traditional, you must view this with the utmost seriousness.


News Host:

Could the fear of what might happen turn into a reality? What do you see as the long-term implications now for UK farming because of what happened over the last seven days?


Mac Johnston:

I really do not have a clear picture of what the next week or next month is going to be. However, let us be quite clear, the fact that we have had two cases today does not mean that the ban did not work. The ban was put in place for a very good reason. We know that this particular strain of the virus develops foot-and-mouth disease very quickly in the animals which are infected - the incubation period is short. So if you took these animals, for example, the ones in the abattoir in Wiltshire, they would have been moved there before the ban. If the ban had been put in place say 24 hours earlier the animals would have been on the farm of origin.


News Host:

Do you think that the outcome is going to be a need for new legislation or better enforcement?


Mac Johnston:

No, I think you have to look at the legislation in place and I think it is quite robust and more than adequate for dealing with this problem. I think we would have to go back and ask - did the enforcement officers do everything correctly in relation to this? For example, if it turns out that this was a breakdown say in the swill feeding order - the swill feeding premises have to be licensed and also they have to be visited regularly to check the time and temperature profiles of the cooking process. So was that done up in Northumberland? If not why not? It is a bit like the BSE problem - we had lots of legislation in the early 90s but how well was it enforced?

I think here it gives a good opportunity for us to look at how well the legislation was enforced. But then as a veterinary surgeon, I must say we must review as a matter of course that we have got the correct level of surveillance both for diseases in our country and for the diseases likely to come into this country. Have we got that in place?

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